Image: Twitter (@IEM)
The main event for IEM Sydney, the latest stop for ESL's world Counter-Strike tour, doesn't officially start until tomorrow. But thanks to a range of upsets and admirable performances from the Australian teams, IEM Sydney has already delivered.
2018 marks the second time ESL has brought a headline tournament down under, although this year's version is substantially bigger in scale. The prize pool sits at $310,000 this time around, and the team list has doubled.
The qualification process isn't as gruelling as, say, a Valve-backed major. But it's a proper international tournament nonetheless. And while Australia is still a far enough flight that foreign teams might not automatically consider competing here, the scale of local events is growing nicely.
What Australian events have lacked, and this isn't exclusive to CS:GO, is a true homegrown threat. Teams that enter the tournament as a genuine force to be reckoned with, rather than a group of ocker underdogs that entertain for the first day or two, before bowing out for the real professionals.
In truth, we're still a fair way from that. The most consistent performers on the global stage for Australia is Renegades, a mostly-Australian team that has been based out of the United States for the last few years. They've consistently qualified for the largest tournaments, but often have trouble breaking through once they get there.
The record for the Aussies that have followed Renegades hasn't been outstanding, either. While teams at various times have put up solid performances to make it to the big stage from time to time, Aussies have become accustomed to seeing their local heroes fall in the first group stage, or the first round of the lower bracket.
Take ESL's last major tournament: IEM Katowice, a $666,375 tournament with 16 of the best teams in the world. Renegades had to run the gauntlet of teams that weren't invited from North America, while six Australian teams battled it out for the Oceanic spot.
From there, ORDER booked a flight to Poland. But their stay was metaphorically brief: FaZe drilled them 16-3 to send the Aussies into the lower bracket, and Ninjas in Pyjamas summarily dismissed them thereafter. Renegades had a better showing, but only made it one round further.
That was the start of March. Two months on, the landscape has shifted - ever so slightly.
Come Friday, only three Australians will be representing the host country. That's an upgrade from last year - Renegades got knocked out by Chiefs in the lower bracket, and neither team made the playoffs. But those are the expectations Australian CS fans have had for the last 15 years: we show up, get a crappy seed,van unfavourable draw and with a bit of luck, someone makes it through to the reactor.
Usually the survivors get there by the skin of their teeth. This year, the local representatives tried their hand at giant killing.
Take SK Gaming, one of the first teams invited to IEM Sydney. The Brazilian team finished third at the recent ELEAGUE Major, won ESL Cologne and the ESL Pro League finals in December, and they came into IEM Sydney as the reigning champions.
After an overtime loss to TyLoo in the first round, SK found themselves against local team Grayhound - where their tournament came to a stunning halt.
It's comfortably the best result in Greyhound's history, and the first real mark the team has made internationally. It was a best-of-three win as well, and while SK undoubtedly had a shocking day, a BO3 win has a legitimacy that a fluke result on a single map just simply doesn't.
Grayhound put up a solid fight against FaZe Clan as well, after the Americans found themselves in the lower bracket courtesy of Renegades. Renegades took out FaZe 2-1 in the upper bracket, with the final map on Inferno decided in triple overtime. FaZe was on match point in regulation time as well, and the American organisation was 21-19 up in the second overtime too.
After the game, Renegades' Justin "jks" Savage explained how difficult beating FaZe was. "[FaZe has] top four placings at every event, so it's obviously going to be a very hard match. We are 0-5 in maps, but personally, I feel like it's been pretty close, some of these games," jks told HLTV.org.
And FaZe wasn't the only foreign team to be humbled yesterday. Cloud9 had a rough day after losing 2-0 to TyLoo, and they should have been knocked out of the tournament altogether by ORDER. The Melbourne team started IEM Sydney with a whimper, but found a second wind after hammering the Americans 16-7 on Cache - a map that Cloud9 picked.
Cloud9 got their own back own. But on the final map, Inferno, ORDER found themselves on match point, with a 4v1 situation that they would have closed out 99% of the time.
A 1v4 clutch to save the match is always a big highlight. It's even more staggering if you win with a gun that you don't use: Will 'RUSH' Wierzba only has 30 kills in his entire recorded career with the AWP, and that's with statistics that go all the way back to late 2014.
Taking those four kills away doesn't mean ORDER wouldn't have been playing on the main stage. They would have still faced off against the winner of Faze, which would have been an interesting matchup given that FaZe put ORDER into the lower bracket earlier in the tournament.
Collectively, it's the kind of performance that changes the perception of a region. But as Chad Burchill explained, it's also an important mental step: teams from smaller regions often have the talent to hold their own, but not always the self-belief.
Regardless of all the obvious caveats and current form of the teams in this group, grayhound and ORDER have both shown they are more than capable of fragging out with some of the world's best. Most the time that's the biggest mental battle for the niche regions.
— Chad Burchill (@SPUNJ) May 2, 2018
Whoever ultimately wins IEM Sydney isn't the most important factor over the next coming days, though. It'll be whether Australian teams and organisations can retain the talent of their stars that have suddenly found themselves under a global spotlight. Fortunately, Australia's in a much better position than ever before, with more infrastructural support and more access to international qualifiers than ever before.
We're still a nation of minnows, across multiple games. And one tournament doesn't change an entire scene's reputation. But these events are ultimately for entertainment, and Australian teams are increasingly fulfilling that role on the global stage. The more that happens, the more invites will come - and one day, Australia might finally have a team of champions of our own.